By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Jacob Wheeler posted single-digit finishes in both of the MLF Bass Pro Tour's back-to-back events at Table Rock Lake, but there were few similarities in how he went about achieving them.
"It was an afternoon event, it was 10 days later and the fish were in a completely different stage when we got there for this go-around," Wheeler said of the most recent derby, which he won on Wednesday by catching 56 fish for 84-00 in the Championship Round. "Plus the water was 2 to 3 feet lower and about 10 degrees warmer.
"Things had changed up quite a bit and it fished like a completely different lake."
He'd finished 5th in the regular scheduled stop in mid-May, when the morning shad spawn was a huge factor and a large number of late-spawning bass were still on the beds. The repeat visit was necessitated when catastrophic flooding in Oklahoma made competing at Grand Lake impossible, and MLF threw a big wrinkle into the second derby by putting the anglers on the water from noon to 8 p.m. for the first 5 days of the 6-day affair.
Wheeler dominated on the first and final days to notch his first tour-level win since the Cherokee Lake Bassmaster Elite Series in February 2017. Here are some of the specifics.
Wheeler spent one of his practice days in the James River, where he'd fished in the prior Table Rock event en route to a 5th-place finish, and the other in the White River. He wrote off everything farther down that lake due to the ultra-clear water.
"I wanted to fish water that was a little more stained and maybe find some schools of fish that were a little bit shallower," he said. "I'd fished the James last time and I didn't want to get locked into the mindset about the same area, but it seemed like the better of the two options for me.
"I ended up finding eight to 10 schools and a few brush piles and cedar trees."
All of the locales he pinpointed were in an 8-mile stretch beginning at the mouth of the river. He could catch the fish that were sitting in 15 to 20 feet of water with a variety of offerings that included a swimbait, a dropshot rig and a shaky-head.
"Deciding to stay in that one section was probably the biggest thing that helped me – I basically learned it inside and out. I knew where the good brush piles and the good docks were and I could be versatile – I wasn't committed to one particular bait or spot."
> Shotgun Round: 88, 129-14
> Elimination Round: 20, 30-03 (108, 160-01)
> Knockout Round: 49, 71-08
> Championship Round: 56, 84-00
> Total: 213, 315-09
Wheeler's gaudy performance in the Shotgun Round set single-day highs for the first-year circuit. It also allowed him to spend the majority of his Elimination Round hunting for new places that would pay off during the Knockout and Championship rounds.
Wheeler took the lead midway through the Championship Round and never relinquished it.
"The first day I caught fish off of nine places, but out of those I only caught fish on three off them throughout the rest of the week because they were getting so much pressure," he said. "The community holes got beaten up really fast and by the second day you couldn't catch fish off of them anymore because they'd seen it all."
During his in-tournament scouting sessions, he found a handful of places that he labeled "sneaky."
"It couldn't be a big, long point or anything else that was obvious. It had to be something that was out of the way, almost insignificant, so you wouldn't think there'd be a bunch of fish there. One of them was a 45-degree bank that didn't have a point on the Navionics map that went into a large spawning bay that had a couple of flat points inside that weren't obvious. Another place was a little point inside a creek that didn't look like a whole lot.
"In all the tournaments I've won offshore I've had a couple places to myself. If you're the only one fishing them, you can let them rest and allow the fish to set back up so you can go back and catch some more. By the end, I had four or five places where I felt like I was the only guy fishing them."
A few other anglers matched his pace during the early portion of the Championship Round, but none had his staying power. He took the lead for good during the latter part of the second of the three 2 1/2-hour periods when he discovered a submerged cedar tree in one of his out-of-the-way places with dozens of fish suspended throughout the upper branches.
"At least 20 of my fish came off one (or the other) of those sneaky schools where I didn't have to worry about locals or other people fishing them. I fished the community stuff, but I had a big advantage because I had those other places in my back pocket."
Winning Gear Notes
> Swimbait gear: 7' medium-heavy Duckett Fishing Jacob Wheeler Signature Series rod, Duckett Fishing 320 Series casting reel (6.3:1), 12-pound Sufix Advance monofilament line, prototype 3/8-ounce VMC swimbait head, Storm 360 GT Lago Shad (pearl white).
> Dropshot gear: 7'2" medium-heavy Duckett Fishing Jacob Wheeler Signature Series rod, unnamed spinning reel, 10-pound Sufix Invisiline fluorcarbon (main line), 8-pound Sufix Nanobraid (leader), 1/4-ounce VMC tungsten teardrop weight, 1/0 VMC Finesse Neko hook, 4 1/2" hand-poured worm or Googan Baits Drag 'N Drop worm (morning dawn).
> He caught a fair number of fish around docks on a Googan Baits Lunker Log (baby bass) with a 1/16-ounce VMC Nail Weight inserted into the head.
> He also threw a crankbait, a hair jig and a shaky-head with a Googan Baits Slim Shake (blue baby).
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